On Collaboration in Learning

For several decades, cognitive scientists and anthropologists have been studying two opposing hypotheses to explain of the anatomical and behavioral differences between the brains of humans and the brains of other primates. According the social brain hypothesis, social factors are the primary force driving the development of the human brain; according to the ecological brain hypothesis ecological factors are the primary factor affecting brain development. After decades of study, the social brain hypothesis was best supported by the evidence (Dunbar, 2007). Cognitive and developmental psychologist Michael Tomassello (2014) described the importance of social interaction for human nature when he observed, “Humans biologically inherit their basic capacities for constructing uniquely human cognitive representations, forms of inference, and self-monitoring, out of their collaborative and communicative interactions with other social beings. Absent a social environment, these capacities would wither away from disuse….” (p. 147). Learning in the human brains, it turns out, is a social process as much as it is a cognitive process.  

Faculty who organize the curriculum for deeper learning understand the social nature of learning and include social learning in their courses. The nature of the social interaction that is meaningful for deeper learning is important, however. In some forms of social learning, students are encouraged to “work together” to learn the information they need. When approached in this way, social learning can improve encoding and recall of information, but when it is undertaken to improve learning content alone, it is not necessarily promoting deeper learning.  

To maximize the social interaction that leads to deeper learning, faculty organize the curriculum so that learners collaborate in two ways. First, they facilitate learners engaging with the content to be learned in social contexts and social situations. While the intent of this type of collaboration is primarily to develop foundational knowledge, the collaboration finds learners integrating the new knowledge with their existing knowledge and interact with others with the knowledge as the focus. Cress and Kimmerle (2018) suggested, “When people learn collaboratively, they have to externalize their own previous knowledge, reflect upon it, explain it to others, and ask questions. These activities in turn, lead to learning in each individual” (p. 139). 


Cress, U., & Kimmerle, J. (2018). Collective knowledge construction. In F. Fischer, C. Hmelo-Siver, S. Goldmand, P. Reimann (eds.). International Handbook of the Learning Sciences (pp. 137-146). Routledge. 

Dunbar, R. (2007). The social brain hypothesis and its relevance to social psychology. In J. Forgas, M. Haselton, & W. von Hippel, (Eds.) Evolution and the social mind: Evolutionary psychology and social cognition, (pp. 21-31). Psychology Press. 

Tomasello, M. (2014). A natural history of human thinking. Harvard University Press.